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Urban China: Yet Another Great Leap Backward?

Look at China’s urban rehabilitation program, and you may start to feel as if you are inside the pages of 1984 or Brave New World.   The Chinese government is cast as an all-too-powerful Big Brother, moving its citizenry about like pieces on a chess board in the quest for checkmate – or, in China’s case, economic growth.

Let’s begin with the numbers.  In 1979, only 20% of China’s vast population lived in cities. Today, that number is over 50% and rising fast. However, for many officials of China’s reigning Communist Party, this growth is still not fast enough.  In just twelve years, the government plans to transfer an astounding 250 million of the country’s rural residents into newly constructed towns and cities.  To put that into perspective, this would be the equivalent of Washington deciding to rapidly uproot almost 80% of the population of the United States – and then build new places for all of them to live.  The hope is that this will bring new growth to China’s domestic consumer market, maintaining the rapid progress the nation has become accustomed to.  It also reflects a reversal of Chinese culture – from a historically agricultural society to an industrialized one.  Li Yongping, the man in charge of the relocation of 2.4 million farmers in Shaanxi Province, puts it like this: Our mission is “to teach ordinary Chinese people to bid farewell to … backward ways of living.” The flaw in the plan? Those 250 million “backward” people already have homes and lives, and some of them do not want to leave them.

Over the past decade, tens of millions of rural homes have been demolished by the government in its quest for a new China – with or without their occupants’ consent.  Where villages and temples once stood for generations, one now sees construction equipment and long stretches of high rises.  Li Xiangyang, vice director of the Institute of World Economics, is confident that, “if half of China’s population starts consuming, growth is inevitable.”  The plan is for inhabitants to leave voluntarily, and in return to receive compensation to begin new lives as urban workers and consumers.  Although expensive – economists predict that it will cost over $600 billion a year – the program is already generating vast income for local governments.   In the first nine months of 2013 alone, land sales were the source of more than $300 billion for 300 city governments.  Given the high pay-off, it is not surprising that the program has given rise to rampant corruption.  A recent survey by the Landesa Rural Development Institute has found that 1 in 5 farmers are never paid for their land at all, and a report by Amnesty International calls the evictions of China’s farmers a violation of international law.  It points out that, “if they do receive compensation, it usually falls far short of what they would need to rebuild their lives after being forced from their land and community.”

Even when villagers leave their homes willingly, their rapid rehabilitation often results in a strange hybrid lifestyle, with individuals caught somewhere between the old and the new.  In the town of Qiyan, the inhabitants live in brand-new, modern apartments, complete with indoor heating and technological luxuries like microwaves and televisions.  Go inside however, and many of these apartments remain cold and dark.  While they may have moved into these new apartments, the cost of electricity remains far beyond the reach of most former villagers.  Many huddle around fires outside to keep warm, or return to the river to wash their clothes – while their new washing machines sit in dark rooms, never turned on. Lin Jianqing, who was relocated two years ago, describes his predicament: “Back when we lived in the mountains we had monthly electric bills of 10 yuan [about $1.60]” but now “we had to pay 670 yuan – about $110 – so from now on we don’t heat or even use the washing machine.”  Moreover, the speed of the program is outpacing that of the central government’s ability to provide local governments with the funds to support their new inhabitants (hukou’s) – without which they cannot register in local schools or qualify for medical programs.

Beyond the logistical difficulties, there exists an even more heartbreaking human cost.  The Landesa survey revealed that the government has already taken, or attempted to take, the land of 43% of all Chinese villagers.  Increasingly, the government is becoming impatient waiting for villagers to leave voluntarily.  However, for many rural individuals, especially older people with little education or urban hiring prospects, no amount of compensation has been enough to convince them to abandon their homes.  When faced with the destruction of their former lives, their desperation has led to disastrous and dramatic consequences.

Since 2009, there have been 53 confirmed instances of farmers setting themselves on fire when confronted with the demolitions of their homes.  Farmers like 42-year-old He Mengqing, who had lived in the south-central Hunan province.  When officials arrived to level his house, he rushed inside and locked the door. As his door was forcibly pried open, He poured gasoline over himself – and set himself on fire.  His sister-in-law described his desperation: “His child and entire family depend on him.  He knew he couldn’t find other work because he had no diploma and is growing old.”  The government’s response to cases of self-immolation has not been to slow the progress of urbanization, but rather to suppress reporting and to pay off the families of its victims.  In He’s case, videos that had been posted online have been censored, and a local TV station’s coverage has been blocked.  In the case of 47-year-old Zhou Lijun, who set herself on fire last May, the government paid her family a compensation of $570,000.  While voluntary rehabilitation is the government’s goal, it has proved that no amount of protest will halt the inexorable roll of urban progress.

As China continues on its path to the future, one can only hope that they will look back at the lessons of their history – and that the rest of the world will as well.  Today’s urbanization – and the firm hand of the government that guides it – is in many ways disconcertingly akin to the rural planning of Mao Zedong.  Gao Yu, China country director for Landesa, describes the national attitude: “There’s this feeling that we have to modernize, we have to urbanize and this is our national-development strategy… It’s almost like another Great Leap Forward.”  The Great Leap Forward, China’s quest for overnight industrialization, saw millions forced into farming collectives, resulting in mass famine and the death of millions.  As China embarks on this quest for urbanization, it should serve as a stark example of the dangers of rapid social engineering.  On November 9, China’s top leaders meet to discuss the future of their nation’s economy – and to attempt to solve the problems of urban rehabilitation.  There is talk of strengthening compensation and land rights for farmers, but none of halting the mandatory nature of the plan.  As these talks progress, it is up to the international community not to turn a blind eye to the plight of millions of Chinese farmers.

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About the author
Nora Updegrove
Nora Updegrove
Nora Updegrove studied government and international relations at Georgetown University and works as a writer and researcher. Other experience includes work on Capitol Hill, a European advocacy group, and marketing for international non-profits. Outside of work, she loves politics, mythology and her dog.

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